Money, intrigue and seduction abound amid Grecian ruins in Iranian-British screenwriter Hossein Amini’s directorial debut, The Two Faces of January. Based on a Patricia Highsmith bestseller, and it’s a solid, if relatively unexceptional filmmaking debut for the man behind the screenplays for Drive and The Wings of the Dove.
Rydal (Oscar Isaac, fresh from his brilliant lead performance in Inside Llewyn Davis) is an American living in Athens in 1962, making his living as a tour guide. He’s Yale-educated, speaks multiple languages, but has a difficult relationship with his family stateside, scamming wealthy young women for a couple of drachmas at a time. While seducing one such woman, he becomes intrigued by Colette (Kirsten Dunst) and her tan-suited husband, Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen). They encounter one another, and the wealthy MacFarlands hire him as a guide. Chester is suspicious of Rydal, especially with his intentions towards Colette. However, Chester harbours his own secrets. He’s confronted at his hotel by a private investigator, who alleges he’s defrauded investors out of millions. An altercation and a cover up ensues, with Rydal caught in the middle. Their relationships breaks down as Chester’s jealousy takes over, and as Rydal becomes more deeply involved in their crimes.
The acting of all three leads is commendable. Isaac in particular is excellent as Rydal, and no one can play a tormented, shadowy, ouzo-soaked misanthrope like Mortensen. Dunst phones it in a little bit, but the film does represent a good choice for the actress in the vein of recent performances in films like Melancholia and On the Road.
It’s hard not to draw parallels to another adaptation of a Highsmith novel, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. The film is set in the same general period, and both concern well-to-do Americans in the Mediterranean consumed with greed and vanity. Rydal has fled his privilege but now struggles without it. Chester has acquired the privilege, but through shadowy means. These themes have the potential to be fascinating, and they do bubble under the surface, but are never really borne out.
It’s a stylish film, though, and Greece serves as a stunning backdrop to the intrigue. But it lapses into well-trod suspense territory. There were moments of true heart-pounding tension, but on the whole it’s fairly predictable stuff. I wanted there to be more lurking beneath the surface; more about Colette’s past and Rydal’s background. His motivations are central to the film, but sometimes you’re only left scratching your head as to everyone’s motivations.
The Talented Mr. Ripley was similarly stylish and glossy, but the real story lurked beneath the surface of the suspense and intrigue, and was borne out brilliantly through the characters and their nuances. Amini would have done well to delve further into Highsmith’s text and deliver something that wasn’t just another good-looking suspense film. As it stands, he has a story with a great hook and a cast to carry it off well enough, but he’s doing little else to elevate the material in any other way. (Cameron Bryant)